Private Election Deal Defended Amid Protests

Government officials Wed­nes­day staunchly de­fended a deal with a private firm to organize July elections, despite growing criticism from donors, watchdogs and opposition politicians.

Officials said the contract was approved in advance by members of the National Election Committee and is just a safety net in case foreign aid falls through.

“It is not a secret deal,” Svay Sitha, a political adviser to the Council of Ministers, said Wed­nesday in an interview at his home. “This is not a deal that the government forced the NEC to do, but it is a request of the NEC that the government proposed the NEC to consider.”

Asked why the government did not announce the signing until two weeks after the March 5 deal had been inked, Svay Sitha, who wrote and signed the statement, blamed the delay on bu­reaucracy. He said approval for the announcement had to clear many layers of government.

Svay Sitha’s defense of the contract came a day after three opposition politicians, including Sam Rainsy, called for the resignation of NEC President Chheng Phon and the dissolution of the election committee.

Chheng Phon defended the contract, as did two NEC members reached Wednesday.

On Wednesday, criticism of the contract with Ciccone Calco­grafica SA, an Argentinean company, and Malam Systems Ltd, an Israeli company, continued to grow.

Comfrel, an election watchdog, slammed the deal and called for it to be terminated.

“The arrangement lacks transparency, having been concluded in secrecy and only announced to the public some time afterwards,” a statement by the organization read.

A Japanese diplomat said Wed­nesday the contract is not so much a “spare tire” as the government suggests, but a “vehicle.”

“It raises concerns about ac­countability because the contract was announced by a small group of people not associated with the NEC,” said Japanese First Sec­retary Kazuhiro Nakai. “Naturally this is a serious problem of ac­countability.”

Australia, the European Union and Japan have offered about $14 million of at least $26 million needed to stage elections, al­though substantial conditions for free and fair elections have been placed on those funds.

For his part, Chheng Phon said Tuesday the election body took their concerns to the government about the possibility of election financing failing to materialize.

“If the NEC reports any difficulties in [carrying out elections], you have to report it to the government,” he said Tuesday. “And if the government has managed to find other means for us, then we have to work with it.”

He also claimed a majority vote of the NEC members had ap­proved the deal before signing.

Svay Sitha also said Wednes­day that reports Sar Kheng did not know about the deal are untrue. It was Sar Kheng’s In­terior Ministry that wrote the original draft of the election law and houses the NEC.

“I can assure you, Sar Kheng is the one who backed up, who fully backed up this deal,” Svay Sitha said.

However, Ok Serei Sopheak, a senior adviser to Sar Kheng, in­sisted Wednesday that the co-minister of interior had no knowledge of the deal until after it was signed.

“He cannot support it if he doesn’t know the content of the deal,” Ok Serei Sopheak said.

Svay Sitha said no money has been been paid to the firms despite their preparation for work in case they are officially summoned by the NEC.

When asked whether the Cam­bodian government had paid Ciccone and Malam, Nakai said, “I must refrain from commenting,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Rachel Watson, Catherine Philp, Lor Chandara and Mhari Saito)

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